Gotham Gazette

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Our Youngest Students Deserve Great Teachers Too

classroom nycgob

(photo via @nycgob)

When your child starts his or her very first day of school, you do everything you can to prepare them for the beginning of their educational journey. But you might be surprised to find out that a new study shows there’s a good chance your school assigns one of their lower-performing teachers to kindergarten or other earliest grades. Although research shows that the earliest grades have an outsized impact on success later in life, administrators are in some ways incentivized to push their least effective teachers to early elementary because states often don’t test students until the third grade. That means that despite all your preparation and hopes, your child may have a struggling teacher to lay the foundation for his or her future learning.

Your child deserves a great teacher practicing in their element, regardless of whether or not they’re part of a state testing grade. Instead of “shuffling” our teachers, we need to dedicate resources toward helping our educators strengthen their practice. As New York and our entire country confront a national teacher shortage, it’s more important than ever to help our teachers rise to their full potential to become lifelong, excellent educators.

From what I’ve seen, we have a long way to go. Over the last five years, I have heard colleagues across the city describe how new and developing teachers are assigned to subjects outside of their skillset and training, rather than provided with the support to excel in the subject of their expertise. The story of one of these teachers, whom I will call Mary, best exemplifies the damage this practice is inflicting on both students and teachers.

When Mary began her career teaching fifth-grade math, she was full of energy and a deep commitment to help her students grow into analytical and enthusiastic mathematicians. But, as with most first-year teachers, Mary struggled with managing her students’ behavior, hindering her students’ learning and making every day a challenge. But despite a year that tested her resolve and often brought her to tears, her optimism remained. Mary believed that if she worked hard and received support and guidance from administrators, she could grow into an exceptional teacher.

Instead, after state test results were released, she was reassigned to the untested subject of K-3 literacy enrichment, a discipline requiring an entirely different skillset from math.

What Mary needed was the targeted and consistent training all teachers deserve. What she received was neglect. Isolated and out of her element, behavior issues in her class only worsened, and her bright outlook on teaching quickly dimmed.

The good news is that some schools, such as the Lillian Weber School of the Arts where I teach, are bucking that trend, demonstrating that supporting teachers like Mary is actually quite simple and cost-effective.

These schools provide professional development opportunities tailored to meet teachers’ individual needs and empower veteran teachers to be mentors who develop meaningful and productive partnerships with their less experienced colleagues. In addition, some schools have begun forming Professional Learning Communities that allow teachers to collaborate to analyze classroom strategies, learn and master instructional practices, and fine-tune their instruction based on student data.

In my school, our administration provides over six different topics for teachers to choose from, deepening our engagement and helping us build the skills to eventually facilitate our own five-week learning community cycle on topics that were once growth areas. With these and other methods, our schools can create excellent teachers. Purposeful and consistent support allows any educator to learn the skills to give our students the fluency to become readers, the number sense to become mathematicians, and the life skills to become leaders.

The short-term goals of strong standardized test scores are often at odds with the long-term goals of creating strong, curious learners. But this does not mean we should get rid of tests. Testing is important; it provides educators and decision-makers with crucial data that inform how we teach and how they allocate resources. But unfortunately, our system can encourage administrators to make decisions to immediately boost test scores rather than based on what is best for the school overall. Instead, we must invest in programs like Title II that provide meaningful learning opportunities for teachers. Rather than displacing our developing educators, we can build effective and invested teachers.

Jazlyn Mena is a STEAM/Data Specialist at an elementary school on the Upper West Side and a member of Educators for Excellence. She is passionate about access to quality STEM  instruction and improving school climate for New York City students.

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Tags: Education

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